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Madison's Makeover

A Shrine to Madison

Master stone mason Ray Cannetti carves a fireplace surround from St. Bees red sandstone from Cambria, England, the same vein as Madison's original.
Master stone mason Ray Cannetti carves a fireplace surround from St. Bees red sandstone from Cambria, England, the same vein as Madison's original. (Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation)

On a tour of the house earlier this month, Jeanes pointed out an old chimney piece, an original from Madison's house, borrowed from a local family (to whom it had been given during the duPont years). Every detail is being scrutinized, from paint chips to nail holes that indicate how it was fitted into place. He also points out strips of wood that have been carefully put back together to reconstruct a wall panel, a jigsaw puzzle that reveals the ghost markings of an old staircase. In what was once Madison's dining room, Jeanes notes (with considerable relief) the reconstruction of a load-bearing wall that had been removed, despite the fact that a bathroom with a six-foot cast iron tub was placed above it.

As with most reconstruction efforts, leaders of the project have had to decide on a certain standard of compromise. In the attic, underneath the cypress-shingled roof, Jeanes points to a Gore-Tex-like fabric that is being used to make the home more weatherproof. Plumbing from later renovations will be removed, though a small bathroom will be tucked into a closet space. Ductwork is being hidden in fireplaces and in interstitial spaces that will be closed up as the house is returned to Madison's floor plan. The main intake for the heating and cooling system is being run underground into the basement from a spot outside the house where the guts of the system will be buried out of sight. While the trench is being dug, one whole wall of the house hangs from massive, temporary girders. Even preserved pollen, found in old postholes, is being saved to help guide the landscaping when the grounds are restored.

Perhaps the most fundamental compromise, however, has been the decision as to which of Madison's houses the end product will most resemble. The original mansion was built in the 1760s by Madison's father, and although it was one of the largest buildings in Orange County at the time, it was small and boxy by comparison with the house that Madison died in decades later. After Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a Quaker widow who quickly transformed herself into an elegant Virginia matron, he enlarged the house by adding a 30-foot extension to one side. At that point, Montpelier was essentially a duplex, with James and Dolley living in one part and James's parents in the other; although there's no evidence of domestic dissonance, the two sides had no interior connection. Later, a large portico was added, the two spaces connected and, in 1809-1812, two brick wings built on either side.

It is essentially that house -- the basic lines of which were established while Madison was president -- that emerged when a red curtain was pulled off in a grand unveiling ceremony last April. With the demolition of the duPont additions, the argument about how the home would be preserved was over. Like it or not, the reduced, restored Montpelier is now a shrine to Madison. But while the process of finding the Madison house has been meticulous (Jeanes calls the demolition work "surgical"), there is a larger question. Is there enough Madison in Montpelier to be interesting? And perhaps even more to the point, was Madison himself interesting enough for his home to be a required stop on the federal history tour?

Quinn, not surprisingly, thinks yes. He cites Madison's usual sobriquet, "Father of the Constitution," and tells a story about taking a prominent Constitutional scholar through the house. When they got to Madison's library, a central second-floor space under the portico, the man asked for a moment of silence. He wanted to absorb the atmosphere in the room where Madison did the basic R&D on the document that still governs the nation today.

But is that enough? You can easily imagine one of Jane Austen's insufferably fashioned-crazed characters wandering the grounds of Montpelier and declaring the house rather a pedestrian pile. It has a squat, classical dignity, but none of the jewel-like charm and interior idiosyncrasy of Monticello (though the affinity of the two homes will increase if plans to whitewash the front columns proceed). People will always go to Mount Vernon because it belonged to the Father of Our Country. And the John Adams house in Quincy, Mass., has a sober probity to it that speaks volumes about the Puritan-descended family who gave us the second and sixth presidents (and the only ones, at that point in the country's history, who never owned slaves). Can Montpelier hold its own in that company?

"Once you can really see the whole thing, this house is a major architectural statement," says Quinn. He points out that what might seem prosaic to some will be read as pragmatic by others.

"Monticello is a beautiful home," Quinn says. "But when Jefferson didn't get it right the first time, he tore it down and started over. [Madison] is not a perfectionist, he's pragmatic. That makes him the right man to work on the Constitution." Wenger sees evidence of that pragmatism in the careful expansion and rebalancing of the home during the years Madison owned it. "He's very clever in taking Step B with Step C already in mind," he says.

Loss and Reclamation

Regardless of its architectural merits, Montpelier is being restored at a cultural moment that is particularly devoted to canonizing the Founding Fathers. And Madison, a shy bookish figure who was deeply respected but never had the flash and sizzle of Jefferson or the grandeur of Washington, is increasingly getting his due. Richard Labunski, in his newly published "James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights," lays out Madison's pivotal role in selling the Constitution to the people of Virginia. If Virginia, the young country's most important state, had remained wayward from the rest, then George Washington, a Virginian, could not have been the first president -- and the future of the country might well have been in doubt. Catherine Allgor has published "A Perfect Union," a major reconsideration of Dolley Madison, which argues that she played a pivotal role in setting the tone not just for future first ladies, but also for the behind-the-scenes Washington social life that traditionally helped political factions find common ground.

Allgor's book also leaves one with a sense of sadness about Montpelier. Dolley and James retired to the estate after he left office in 1817. It was, Allgor writes, a triumphant retirement. The country had weathered the British depredations of 1814, including the burning of the White House. Dolley was beloved, her husband respected. Much of the factionalism that James had fretted over during the framing of the Constitution was in temporary recession. The implications of the Constitution's major failing, its retention of slavery, could still be papered over. And the Civil War, including several major battles fought within a few miles of Montpelier, was years away.

But as a financial concern, Montpelier was already failing. Over the next decades, it was mortgaged as farm prices fell and the drink and gambling debts of Dolley's wastrel son, John Payne Todd, mounted. Madison died in 1836, but the proceeds from the publication of his memoirs couldn't save the house. Nor could a new mortgage from John Jacob Astor in 1842. In 1844 the estate, and its slaves, passed out of Dolley's hands.

A century and a half later, Montpelier is being reinvented as part of the urgent remedial education project about American history and values being done piecemeal around the country by groups including the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and private ventures such as Mount Vernon. Like the exposed lathe of the walls at Montpelier, Madison, the man, will need to be built up, layer by layer. It won't necessarily be easy. He was erudite -- "sedentary and studious," according to one description -- and in later years he became garrulous. He suffered horribly from diarrhea, which made travel a penitential experience. He was short, balding and mostly wore black. His accomplishments inspire a certain admiration, but the man doesn't throb with personality.

But the foundation that now runs Montpelier is hoping that rooms like the one beneath the portico, once a library, will help. On a recent visit, sawdust was falling in from the attic above, a strange snow on a torrid day. The fireplace is still there, but you had to imagine everything else: the books, the chair and the man in it, pondering the lawgivers and tyrants of the past. If you lean down, to catch a view of the mountains beneath the overhang of the portico, the room begins to make a certain sense. Here, comfortably pampered by slaves, nestled in a womblike room of books, Madison imagined a republic that would engulf the continent and outlast all its precedents. The first part of that dream came true. The second, like the interior of the house, is a work in progress.

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